Yes, I remember the date and the time.

As the chorus parts chanted below,

“Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du musst sterben!
It is an ancient Law: Man, you must die!“,

the soprano solo liltingly cried,

“Ja, Ja; Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm!
Yes, Yes, Yes, Come, Lord Jesus, Come!“,

and I was converted; that is, I fell in love with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his cantatas. These lines come from the music of Cantata No. 106 (BWV 106), “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit [God’s time is the very best of times],” aka Actus Tragicus. You can fine more details on the cantata at the bach-cantatas website, including streaming audio [1], the German text and English translation(s), A score is available here.

In 1707 a young J. S. Bach probably composed this cantata for a funeral, perhaps for that of an uncle, and yet its setting is entirely Christian in nature. What I mean by that is, the cantata has a kind of buoyancy to it. While I am sure many associate dirges with the music of Bach (and his organ works in particular), they really have no idea. His funeral music would put ours to shame. There is a definite sense of joy in the piece (literally mentioned in the third movement), a certainty in the salvation of the Lord.

The work begins with a sublime sonatina, one of the most beautiful orchestral pieces Bach composed (at least without oboe). There are two solo instruments playing there, one trying to catch up with the other. Is this Bach’s way of showing how we struggle to “catch up”, even comprehend God’s time?

Several things could be highlighted in the second movement, which is really a kind of conglomeration of four separate mini-movements. He begins with a statement of the cantata title, and then depicts with a quick fugue the phrase “In ihm leben, weben und sind wir, solange er will, [In him we live, move and have our being, as long as He wills]” (Acts 17:28). Notice the sopranos hold out “solange.” Bach adds, “In ihm sterben wir zur rechten Zeit, wenn er will [In him we die at the right time, when He wills].” After the tenor sings “Ach, Herr, lehre uns bedenken, dass wir sterben müssen, auf dass wir klug werden [Ah, Lord, teach us to remember that we must die, that we may become wise]” (Ps 90:12), you can sense the flurry of tidying up a house before an imminent guest as the bass sings the words of the prophet Isaiah to King Hezekiah, “Bestelle dein Haus; denn du wirst sterben und nicht lebendig bleiben [Set your house in order, for you will die and not remain living]” (Isa 38:1).

The final part (last half, time wise) of the second movement entails the text I used to introduce this post. The four choral voices circle each other in a kind of fugue about the “ancient Law.” “Man, you must die,” they chant. I think their part here is the most “funeral-sounding” of the entire piece; it sounds like it could come from Mozart’s Requiem. After this the soprano begins her part, “Yes, Yes, Yes, Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” Bach then layers the two together. At the end, the choir below swells, and the soprano sings her line one final time. The line ends unresolved, which could signal one of any number of meanings. I think it means that we believers still earnestly hope in the yet-unfulfilled return of Christ. We still live amidst death.

The third movement itself has two “sections” or “mini-movements.” The first section is brief; an alto sings the text, “In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist; du hast mich erlöset, Herr, du getreuer Gott. [Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, Lord, you the true God]” (Ps 31:5). As the believer promises his trust in God, the bass sings the words of the Lord, the words we all long to hear him say to us, “Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein. [Today you will be with me in Paradise]” (Luke 23:43). The believers (or altos) respond above the solo with music which ends up sounding very much like a lullaby with a hymn of Martin Luther:

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin [With Peace and Joy I depart from here]
In Gottes Willen, [By God’s Will]
Getrost ist mir mein Herz und Sinn, [Consoled I am in heart and mind]
Sanft und stille. [Peace and safety
Wie Gott mir verheißen hat: [As God has promised me,]
Der Tod ist mein Schlaf geworden. [Death has become my slumber]

The final movement is the natural expression of praise for such great promises. The verse of a hymn by Johann Leon is sung, and the entire cantata comes to a close with the joyful strains of a fugue on the final line, “Through Jesus Christ, Amen!” One can almost hear the resurrection itself.

Glorie, Lob, Ehr und Herrlichkeit [Glory, Praise, Honor, and Majesty]
Sei dir, Gott Vater und Sohn bereit, [To you, God, Father, and Son, be given]
Dem heilgen Geist mit Namen! [The Holy Spirit with these Names!]
Die göttlich Kraft [The Divine Power]
Mach uns sieghaft [Makes us Triumph]
Durch Jesum Christum, Amen. [Through Jesus Christ. Amen.]

Amen.

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[1]Bach-cantatas.com says concerning the streaming audio, “Warning: The music examples in the Bach Cantatas Website are for educational purposes only. Any distribution or commercial use of these music examples is absolutely forbidden.”

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